Thursday, March 17, 2011

Heroine Addict - What Makes for Some Serious Girl Power?

I've been mulling this post over for a long time. Some might say I've been mulling it over since long before I had a blog, since the issue of strong heroines has always been very important to me. For years, I was always drawn more strongly to the female characters in the story, even if they were only on the periphery. I haven't ever written anything more than a short story from a male pov (and that will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future: I'm dreadful at male pov). Part of the reason I started to write was because I read Tamora Pierce's books and said "yeah! Girls can run around with swords too! I want to write stuff like that!"

So I love a good strong heroine. I can't stand wimpy female characters - that was the reason that both Mansfield Park and The Forest of Hands and Teeth got tossed aside about fifty pages in.

But there seem to be two "easy routes" to strong characters that a lot of people take, and neither of them work. See this Let the Words Flow post on how Sassy Does Not Equal Strong, and my friend Vee's post on What Makes a Strong Heroine.

Strength means more than having a witty comeback for everything tossed the character's way. Strength means more than being able to beat the boys at swordplay. In fact, I would argue that a lot of the time, both those things are only cover ups for characters who are really quite insecure.

And now it's unpopular opinion time! Case in point: Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss is always the one whose name gets tossed out first in the strong heroine category nowadays. And in The Hunger Games, that is certainly true. She goes through some rough stuff and comes out on top, and not just because of her butt-kicking abilities. But in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, that strength goes away. She lets other people make the decisions for her. She becomes a figurehead, a symbol of strength, rather than an actually strong person. I can't say I blame her; she's in way over her head, for sure. But she wouldn't get my vote in the strongest heroine contest.

Another thing that I hate is when people try and make their female characters strong way out of context. (Unless of course that's the whole point, like, say, Pierce's Alanna books.) Like a Victorian "lady" who talks back to everyone and can hold her own at whatever she's set to. Strength can be a quiet thing too. You don't have to be loud to stand up to adversity. You don't have to completely dismantle the rules put in place by the time period or setting. Because then it just seems a little bit ridiculous, not an earnest portrayal of girl power at all.

My idea of a strong character is one who makes her own choices, makes her own mistakes, owns up to her own failings. She might fall, but she'll pick herself back up. She might have help, but she doesn't rely completely on that help.

And yes. She might beat a few of the boys at fencing along the way.


  1. You put in all of my thoughts here. Merely wielding swords and having sarcastic comebacks don't make for strong heroines. Strength comes from within. Which is why even though I love Katniss, she doesn't exactly top my list of favourite strong heroines.
    Strong heroines make me think of someone like Tessa from Jenny Downham's Before I Die who is afraid but does draw on her inner strength to face her fatal condition and set her mind into doing all that she wanted to experience in life before time runs out. I think of many such characters. And they are the ones who stand apart in my mind because they found courage in the most daunting situations.

  2. I much prefer the quite strength of characters. It always seems more genuine to me...and I can relate more to it. Great post!

  3. So true! One of my favorite subtly strong female characters is Sheyrena from the Elvenbane series (she mostly only shows up in Elvenblood, the second book in the series). She's not a warrior. She's a high-bred elven lady, who only possesses "female magic" (guy elves can set stuff on fire with their minds and throw huge rocks around -- the ladies can meld flowers into shapes they want and help heal injured birds and stuff).
    But then (slight spoiler alert) at the end of the book, when there's finally a show-down between her and her totes evil over-bearing father, it's because he doesn't think twice about her wimpy female powers that she's able to subvert his magic and win. She's not a superpowerful BAMF, but her subtle bad-assery wins the day.

  4. I love this entry's title.

    I haven't read a lot in the last decade--tho' I'm working on remedying that this year!--and thus don't have a lot of specific literary examples to draw on. The female characters in the books I've finished recently (A Brief History of Montmaray, Jellicoe Road) have been wonderful, unique individuals. ABHoM's Sophia is very feminine and intrigued by "ladylike" things, but her sense of individuality--not to mention its expression--is unrelenting. That's the kind of character I'd like to see more of: cognizant of her faults, but self-confident nevertheless.

    Your final paragraph about strong characters made me smile. That doesn't just describe who I like to read about, but the kind of person I love to have as friends.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking entry!